Foods High in Nitrates

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on November 15, 2022
3 min read

Nitrates are a set of compounds that involve nitrogen and oxygen molecules. While they are often associated with cured meats, green, leafy vegetables are actually much richer in nitrates.

While the association of nitrate with cured meats causes some to worry about their cancer-causing effects, other studies show that the nitrates found in vegetables may actually help reduce the risk of cancer. Studies suggest that eating foods rich in natural nitrates can help reduce your risk of a number of chronic health conditions, whereas eating foods high in added nitrates can cause health risks.

Nitrates on their own are not broken down by stomach acid. Instead, your gut biome can break down nitrate into nitrite, which can cause health complications such as an increased risk of cancer. 

Nitrate is an inorganic, water-soluble chemical. Your body makes around 62 milligrams (mg) of nitrites a day, but the majority of nitrates come from your diet. On average a person living in the United States consumes 75 to 100 mg of nitrates a day.

Health risks of consuming added nitrates include:

  • Methemoglobinemia in infants (blue baby syndrome)
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Complications during pregnancy

Many processed meats are high in nitrates. While these nitrates are useful for preserving and improving the color of food, they are not good for your health. Many studies recommend that vitamin C be added to cured meats high in nitrates to prevent the formation of harmful nitrite compounds. These 4 foods are some of the worst offenders for added nitrates: 

  1. Ham
    Ham is often the highest source of dietary nitrates. A single 100 g serving of cured ham has as much as 900 mcg of nitrites. This is the source of the iconic pink color of cured hams.
  2. Bacon
    Bacon has up to 380 mcg of nitrites per 100 g of weight. It’s also incredibly high in 5.5. mg nitrites. Nitrates and nitrites tend to be pervasive in bacon production, which leads some brands to label their packaging as nitrite-free. Nitrite-free bacon was tested as having nearly double the amount of nitrates, at up to 680 mcg per 100 g.
  3. Deli Meat
    Deli meat is another major source of harmful nitrates. Cured deli meats on average have up to 500 mcg of nitrates per 100 g of meat, while uncured deli meats have about 300 mcg in the same amount of meat. 
  4. Hot Dogs
    Hot dogs are one of the most processed sources of meat on the market. The average hot dog contains about 50 mcg of nitrites per 100 g of meat, which carries about 9 mg of nitrates. 

Nitrates can be converted into healthy nitric oxide, you don’t need to cut out nitrates entirely. Instead, eat natural sources of nitrates, where the compound is found with other antioxidants and vitamins. These 4 foods are rich in natural nitrates: 

  1. Spinach 
    Spinach is not just a great addition to salads, but also a great source of natural dietary nitrates. A 100 g serving of fresh spinach contains anywhere from 24 to 387 mg of nitrate. This amount varies wildly depending on growing conditions. 
  2. Bok Choy
    Out of the cabbage family, bok choy is the highest in nitrates. Depending on its growing conditions, bok choy can contain anywhere from 103 to 309 mg of nitrates per 100 g.
  3. Lettuce
    While lettuce isn’t always known for being rich in nutrients, it contains a significant amount of natural nitrates. It contains between 13 and 267 mg of nitrates per 100 g servings.
  4. Carrots
    Leafy vegetables aren’t the only source of natural nitrates. If you’re looking for a slightly earthier alternative, carrots contain anywhere from 92 to 195 mg of nitrates per 100 g.